Growing up in the Northeast, the cardinal rule about not wearing white before Memorial Day or after Labor Day was strictly enforced, with the possible exception of wearing white gloves and white patent leather shoes (the horror!) for Easter if it was late enough in April.
Now – thank goodness – anything goes when it comes to wearing white. And while my grandmother would roll over in her grave, I, for one am grateful that the rule has been relaxed (especially since I now live in Arizona, where we’re still seeing triple-digit temps in mid-September!). Faced with several more weeks of white-worthy temps, I got to wondering how this “rule” got started.
It appears that after Labor Day was declared a national holiday in 1894, the ban on wearing white was the practical culmination of the natural change of seasons along with standards devised by old-money society matrons that trickled down to middle-America via the fashion industry. Here’s how.
In pre-AC America, residents in large, trend-setting northern cities donned cooler white and light-colored cottons to help ward off the stifling summer heat that set in after Memorial Day. Those who could afford to escaped the city and headed for cooler ocean or mountain climes, packing their summer seersucker and white-themed “resort wear” with them. When cooler temps returned after Labor Day, summer wear was packed away and folks started bundling up in heavier attire more suited to weathering the winter.
This natural phenomena did not go unnoticed by the dowagers of decent society, who decided that since Labor Day was the end of the summer social season, fashion sense dictated it should also be the official end of wearing white. This was done not so much to assert their fashion-forward sensibilities, but rather as a guise to weed out and ostracize the nouveau riche from their old-monied circle. Wearing white after Labor Day made social climbers who didn’t know the insider’s rules an instant target, and subsequently were quickly snubbed and shunned by polite society.
Enter the fashion industry’s role in spreading the rule to the masses without money. Summer white-themed fashion spreads were featured in the pages of New York-based magazines like Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Cosmopolitan by Memorial Day, followed by fall fashions that were all the rage on their pages just before swimsuit season was over. So by the 1950s, the message to middle-class America was clear: white clothing was divine come Memorial Day but definitely de rigueur after Labor Day.
It’s interesting to note, however, that whatever its origin, the Labor Day rule has always faced challenges, even in the ivory towers of high-fashion. As far back as the 1920s, legendary designer and fashionista Coco Chanel made white a year-round statement.
“It was a permanent part of her wardrobe,” says Bronwyn Cosgrave, author of The Complete History of Costume & Fashion: From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day. And the trend continues to be embraced by today’s fashion élites.
“Fashion rules are meant to be broken by those who can pull it off,” continues Cosgrave, adding white “looks really fresh when people aren’t expecting it.”
Even the Emily Post Institute notes:
“Of course you can wear white after Labor Day, and it makes perfect sense to do so in climates where September’s temperatures are hardly fall-like. It’s more about fabric choice today than color. Even in the dead of winter in northern New England the fashionable wear white wools, cashmeres, jeans and down-filled parkas. The true interpretation is wear what’s appropriate—for the weather, the season, or the occasion.”
Know where else white is always in season and style? On your windows. Check out some of these iconic looks.